Predestination: John Calvin vs. Thomas AquinasMay 23rd, 2009 | By Taylor Marshall | Category: Blog Posts
In his third book of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (chs. 21-24), Calvin articulates his developed doctrine of predestination and reprobation. In chapter 21 in particular, Calvin denies that God’s prescience (“foreknowledge”) is the cause of predestination.
Thomas Aquinas makes a similar argument in Summa theologiae I, q. 23, a. 5. First, Thomas refutes three versions of predestination in light of God’s foreknowledge of human merit. The first he identifies with Origen, namely that souls pre-merited their final states before becoming embodied in time. The second he identifies with the Pelagian error holding that good begins within us and receives its consummation in grace by God. Both theories of predestination are incorrect according to Thomas because each confuses the order of causality. The final cause is always prior in the order of execution and not conditional on intermediary causes. A third option is put forth and also rejected, namely that God gives grace to those whom he knows will rightly use it. This seems less Pelagian, but this theory also places the cause of salvation in us and not in God. Here also grace fails to be grace.
Before appealing to God’s will, Thomas secures the goodness of God by appealing to his previous understanding of providence as it relates to primary and secondary causes (I, q. 22, a. 3). Free will is a secondary cause flowing out from predestination. This distinction ensures that God is not the direct cause of murder or final damnation. This is where Calvin departs from Saint Thomas. In chapter 23 of Book III of the Institutes, Calvin seems to deny the distinction between primary and secondary causation. Calvin mocks those who want to wedge in the claim that the wicked perish by the permission of God and not by the will of God. “The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should: why he deemed it meet, we know not.” Calvin then asserts: “It is certain, however, that it was just, because he saw that his own glory would thereby be displayed.” It seems contrary to justice, but Calvin confirms the decree to sin was just because God obviously cannot be unjust. This argument is circular and rather unsatisfying.
Compare Calvin to Saint Thomas Aquinas. In his reply to the third objection (I, q. 23, a. 5, ad. 3), Thomas states: “The reason for the predestination of some, and reprobation of others, must be sought for in the goodness of God.” Thomas centers his discussion of predestination on God’s goodness. Appealing back to his discussion on divine providence, Thomas writes: “God allows some evils, lest many good things should never happen, as was said above” (i.e. I, q. 22, a. 2).
I still find Thomas’ solution somewhat troubling, but it does seem to track with Pauline passages that discuss election and predestination. It is troubling because it seems to indicate that God loves some more than others. The now deceased priest and theologian Rev. William Most recently proposed a modified Thomistic solution. Most suggested the following logical order in the decree of God’s predestination. First, God wills all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4). Next, God foresees only those who will reject grace persistently and finally. Third, he predestinates all those not in this number to final glory. The beauty of this solution is that God does not predestinate the elect for their own foreseen merits and only damns the reprobate for their sins and their rejection of grace. No one is chosen because he would have done anything of merit. The predestinate are still predestined ante proevisa merita. The decree of predestination is negative with respect to the final state of the predestinate. I find this opinion a bit more satisfying, because it protects the Thomistic emphasis on the gratuity of grace. The predestinate are not strictly chosen for anything they have done. Rather, the elect are predestinate because they are not reprobate. God only foresees the demerits of the damned and then makes his decision based on his own standard of justice. We might even say that the predestinate are chosen only because of God’s goodness, as He is under no obligation to save them since they are sinners. Thomas does not entertain this objection, nor does he offer it as a solution. I wonder whether he would have found it compelling.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Father Most’s position or on the distinctions made by Thomas Aquinas and/or John Calvin.